File encryption made easy

This is a review of an encryption product called PC Encrypt

File encryption made easy
By David Strom

Category: File encryption software
Name of tool: PC Encrypt
Company name: PC Encrypt Inc.
Price: Free to $100, depending on features and encryption strength
URL: www.pc-encrypt.com
Platforms supported: Windows 95/98/NT/Me
Strom-meter: 
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool

Key features:

Pros:
Easy to set up and use
Simple user interface; doesn't have to be installed at both ends.

Cons:
Encrypted files sometimes are larger than unencrypted ones.

Description:
You and several business partners are working together on some sensitive documents. You know enough about e-mail that you don't want to just attach these files to your messages and send them on their way across the Internet. You need a way to encrypt the files, yet make it easy enough so that your colleagues won't have to spend lots of time fooling around with some software. I recommend you try PC Encrypt.

There are lots of alternatives, including password-protecting your Word and Excel documents and using products like PGP-Disk that are part of the PGP suite of encryption tools. But the built-in password protection of Word and Excel are easily broken by anyone with even moderate skill, and PGP-Disk is too clumsy to use with novices.

Why bother with encrypted files? Easy: All Internet-based e-mail is transmitted in clear text from server to server. Anyone with a packet capture tool can quickly assemble your sensitive files, if they happen to be listening in. And if by some chance your files get misdirected to someone else (it has happened to me, both on the receiving and sending end), you'd want this information to be encrypted and safe from the wrong eyes.

PC Encrypt does the trick and in a way that is both quick and clean. It protects you from most of the ways that the bad guys can hijack your documents over the Internet and will also remove the documents from your hard disk (or a corporate network server) in case someone comes into your office after hours and tries to snoop around on your desktop for the information. Once the file is removed, it is totally gone; it isn't in the Recycle can, it can't be found in programs like Norton Un-Erase find it. It is also very cheap, costing $100 per seat to obtain the full-strength 448-bit version, and it is freely downloadable if you want to try out something with lesser (56 bit) encryption strength.

The software will step you through the process: you identify the file or files you want to encrypt and you tell it whether you want one-way encryption (which produces a Windows executable file that can be extracted if you know the password) or standard encryption (which requires another copy of PC Encrypt on the receiving end). Finally, it asks you if you want to delete the original copy of the file. Once you have produced your encrypted file, it will send it via e-mail to your recipients.

Another use of the product is to encrypt your own files on a laptop, in case the laptop gets stolen or lost. Here, you want something that works quickly and easily, and PC Encrypt does a nice job. You can have it encrypt and decrypt groups of files in a particular folder, such as all of your documents, for example. It will maintain the folder structure upon decryption. And for added offsite backup, you can save this as a one-way executable and store it on a public storage service provider, such as MyDocsOnline.

There are a number of additional ease-of-use features in the product, including a key exchange system that can be set up to automatically exchange encrypted files with certain recipients, based on their e-mail address. This doesn't use the public key standards, but it is easier to set up and use -- and is probably just as secure.

I tested PC Encrypt on Windows ME, and it worked flawlessly. My only complaint is that several encrypted files I created took up as much disk space, or more, as their unencrypted originals, which contradicts what the company claims. Still, this is a minor point.

A more significant drawback is that PC Encrypt doesn't encrypt the entire e-mail conversation, and snoopers can still see to whom your messages are addressed. To hide this, you would want to make use of PGP or A-Lock, a companion product from PC Encrypt Inc. But this may be more encryption than you need, and if you are more concerned about the contents of your files falling into the wrong hands versus having all of your communications hidden from snoopers, then a disk encryption utility is best. It is easy to use and something worth the purchase price if you are at all concerned about the kinds of information you send around on the Internet.

Strom-meter key:
**** = Very cool, very useful.
*** = Hey, not bad. One notch below very cool.
** = A tad shaky to install and use but has some value.
* = Don't waste your time. Minimal real value.

About the author
David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, NY. He has tested hundreds of computer products over the past two decades working as a computer journalist, consultant and corporate IT manager. Since 1995, he has written a weekly series of essays on Web technologies and marketing called Web Informant. You can send him e-mail at david@strom.com.


Related book

Internet Messaging; From the Desktop to the Enterprise
Authors: Marshall T. Rose & David Strom
Publisher : Prentice Hall
ISBN/CODE : 0139786104
Cover Type : Soft Cover
Pages : 400
Published : June 1998
Summary:
Internet Messaging is a book that describes practical e-mail applications for corporate users and network administrators. It contains information on how to set up e-mail filters, how to access corporate e-mail systems when on the road, manage mailing lists, exchange secure messages and attachments. It covers the major e-mail client software from Microsoft, Netscape and Eudora. The book was co-written in 1998 by David Strom, industry expert and reviewer, and Marshall T. Rose, one of the inventors of the POP protocol used in all Internet e-mail products.

Review a sample chapter and complete table of contents: http://strom.com/email/.


This was first published in May 2001

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